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Michigan vs. Michigan State: Why Do The Wolverines Pass Better In The Second Half?

Your eyes aren't deceiving you: Michigan is much better at passing the ball in the second half. Let's try to figure out why that is the case.

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Sometimes you are forced to choose between what the numbers say and what your own, lying eyes see. It may feel like Coach A "can't make halftime adjustments" and coaches a pretty poor second-half team, but the stats disagree. It may seem as if Running Back B is a great, explosive back, but his complete lack of efficiency makes him a mediocre back. Nothing ruins a good rant more than somebody disagreeing with you with numbers.

That said, sometimes the numbers see what you see. Are you one of those people who feel that Michigan plods through the first half of games with inefficient, ineffective passing, then suddenly becomes magical in the second half? You should be, because the numbers back that impression up.

  • First Quarter: 13th in overall S&P+, first in Rushing S&P+, 69th in Passing S&P+
  • Second Quarter: 23rd in overall S&P+, 18th in Rushing S&P+, 25th in Passing S&P+
  • Third Quarter: sixth in overall S&P+, seventh in Rushing S&P+, 25th in Passing S&P+
  • Fourth Quarter: sixth in overall S&P+, 28th in Rushing S&P+, second in Passing S&P+

Michigan has a rock solid run game early in each half (before Denard Robinson gets tired, perhaps?), but a passing game that is below average early in games, turns into one of the nation's best as the game progresses. As we get ready to watch the Wolverines take on a Michigan State defense that is rock solid in most aspects of the game -- the Spartans rank 19th in overall S&P+, 29th against the run, 20th against the pass, 12th on standard downs and eighth on passing downs -- let's try to figure out what exactly changes in the Michigan pass attack from kickoff to game's close.

Looking at only what happens while a game is considered "close" (i.e. within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third and 16 in the fourth), Michigan's general run-pass ratios take some odd shifts over the course of a game.

First Quarter: In the first quarter, they run the ball 64.5 percent of the time on standard downs (the national average typically hovers around 60 percent) and 48 percent of the time on passing downs (the national average is usually around 32 percent). In theory, this is a rather conservative way to go about things; the Wolverines are attempting to mix in the pass on standard downs, while they are protecting Robinson on passing downs by running quite a bit. In all, this approach is relatively effective -- Robinson gets half of Michigan's carries and averages 8.2 per attempt, while primary backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith average 7.0 yards. Meanwhile, Robinson is 24-for-35 passing for a respectable 285 yards (8.1 per attempt), but with three interceptions mixed in.

Second Quarter: Beginning in the second quarter, Michigan's general strategy takes off in two different directions. They do almost nothing but run on standard downs (78.3 percent), but they no longer attempt to protect Robinson on passing downs, throwing 33.3 percent of the time. They become rather predictable, but that doesn't necessarily hurt their results much. Robinson occupies 48 percent of Michigan's carries and still averages 8.4 yards per tote; Toussaint's per-carry average falls to 5.7, while Smith and Michael Shaw average 9.1. Michigan's Rushing S&P+ falls, but not by much. Meanwhile, the passing game falls into all-or-nothing mode. They have completed just 17 of 35 second-quarter passes (48.6 percent) for 243 yards (6.9 per pass) and two interceptions.

Third Quarter: The play-calling shifts once again, at least on passing downs. Michigan still runs 77.4 percent of the time on standard downs, but they go back to an even, 50-50 split on passing downs. The almost Navy-esque amount of running does Robinson few favors -- his per-carry average falls to a still-solid 6.2, while the trio of backs (Toussaint, Shaw and Smith) average 6.5. But the all-or-nothing pass attack becomes more "all," less "nothing." Robinson and Devin Gardner have completed just 17 of 33 third-quarter passes (51.5 percent), but for 369 yards (11.2 per pass). Eleven of their 17 third-quarter completions have gone for at least 17 yards.

Fourth Quarter: As in the second quarter, Michigan gets strangely predictable in the fourth quarter, running 73.3 percent of the time on standard downs and passing 75.0 percent of the time on passing downs. But it has worked. Robinson has completed 11 of 16 close-game passes for a rather ridiculous 253 yards (15.8 per attempt). This comes despite a less effective running game -- Robinson averages 5.4 yards per carry, the running backs just 4.4. They are facing a higher percentage of passing downs, but in this reasonably small sample size, they have made the plays.

Michigan's passing game actually improves as they eschew attempted efficiency to go for the jugular. Does Robinson's eye wander a bit to different targets during this shift?

  • First Quarter
    Jeremy Gallon: 21% target rate, 100% catch rate, 8.0 yards per target
    Junior Hemingway: 18% target rate, 100% catch rate, 19.7 yards per target
    Roy Roundtree: 18% target rate, 33% catch rate, 2.2 yards per target
  • Second Quarter
    Hemingway: 26% target rate, 57% catch rate, 11.7 yards per target
    Roundtree: 26% target rate, 29% catch rate, 2.1 yards per target
    Kevin Koger: 22% target rate, 50% catch rate, 4.3 yards per target
    Gallon: 11% target rate, 100% catch rate, 17.0 yards per target
  • Third Quarter
    Roundtree: 18% target rate, 75% catch rate, 20.8 yards per target
    Koger: 18% target rate, 50% catch rate, 7.5 yards per target
    Hemingway: 14% target rate, 33% catch rate, 25.7 yards per target
    Drew Dileo: 14% target rate, 67% catch rate, 12.0 yards per target
    Jeremy Gallon: 14% target rate, 67% catch rate, 6.3 yards per target
    RUNNING BACKS: 14% target rate, 67% catch rate, 10.7 yards per target
  • Fourth Quarter
    Gallon: 22% target rate, 75% catch rate, 27.5 yards per target
    Hemingway: 17% target rate, 67% catch rate, 21.0 yards per target
    Roundtree: 17% target rate, 33% catch rate, 5.3 yards per target
    RUNNING BACKS: 17% target rate, 100% catch rate, 12.3 yards per target

What can we glean from this data? Michigan's passing game changes in the second half in two ways: a) the running backs get a little more involved, and b) Roy Roundtree at least briefly pulls his head out of his posterior. For the season, Roundtree has seen as many targets as Hemingway and two more than Gallon, but his 36-percent catch rate (8-for-22) and general lack of production (5.8 yards per target, as compared to Hemingway's 17.8 and Gallon's 13.1) have slowed the Wolverines down quite a bit.

Michigan is explosive enough to fall behind Michigan State and come back (like they did versus both Notre Dame and Northwestern), but the Spartans are outstanding on passing downs, and for all intents and purposes, a decent-sized deficit results in a full-time passing downs mindset. If the Spartans build an early lead, they can dictate the game's narrative and come away with a win. But as long as Robinson is upright, and as long as he is targeting Gallon and Hemingway (and perhaps some running backs before the second half), Michigan obviously has a very good chance of staying undefeated.